Democrats in Washington, D.C., are Leery
by Jim Barnett and Jeff Mapes
The party's labor and environmental supporters are divided on the question of breaching dams
Gov. John Kitzhaber's call to breach four dams on the lower Snake River may give extra credibility to a once-radical idea. But will it inspire politicians in Washington, D.C., to take action? Probably not, fellow Democrats said Friday.
"There is no support in Congress to breach or tear down dams," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during a visit to Portland. "It's an expensive proposition. Now is not the time to debate that alternative."
While Republicans, who control Congress, generally oppose breaching dams to save endangered salmon, Northwest Democrats on Capitol Hill haven't embraced the idea, either.
Murray's wait-and-see position is typical. Before they endorse breaching the four dams in Eastern Washington state, Democrats want ironclad scientific proof and broad public support.
A governor's plea -- even Kitzhaber's -- isn't enough to draw them out.
"My position would be there is still an awful lot of issues that have to be addressed before I could arrive at the position" that dams have to be breached, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Likewise, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said he shares Kitzhaber's commitment to saving salmon. But he awaits the outcome of scientific studies on dam breaching, as well as public comments on those findings. "I am reserving my judgment on dam removal while these broader discussions take place," Blumenauer said.
Why the hesitancy to line up behind Kitzhaber? In purely political terms, dam-breaching is a no-win proposition for Northwest Democrats. Their dilemma: One key constituency -- environmentalists -- wants dams breached to save salmon. But members of another -- labor -- generally oppose breaching because they fear losing jobs. To make any choice risks alienating loyal supporters.
"It puts the Democrats in a really bad position," said Gerry Klemm, a union organizer at the Potlatch Corp. plant in Lewiston, Idaho, who met with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, at an anti-breaching rally on Friday afternoon.
Perhaps no Democrat feels the pressure of these constituents' competing demands more than Vice President Al Gore, who is counting on both camps to support his bid in 2000 presidential race.
There have been defections: Friends of the Earth, a national environmental group, endorsed Gore's rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. And some labor groups wavered before endorsing Gore last year.
Kitzhaber, who also has endorsed Bradley, makes no secret of his frustration with Gore's handling of the salmon issue. He accuses the vice president of moving too slowly to save a signature species of the Northwest.
In response, administration officials said they're moving at the appropriate pace.
"We are proceeding as quickly as practicable to arrive at a lasting solution that is based on sound science and is backed by strong regional consensus," said Elliot Diringer, a spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Governor John Kitzhaber's American Fisheries Society Speech
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs